From the Archive: Airstreams, Loved by Both Boomers and Millennials

Lifestyle and culture explained

by | Jan 31, 2020 | Culture

Photo Credit: Colin Beresford

From the Archive: Airstreams, Loved by Both Boomers and Millennials

Lifestyle and culture explained

by | Jan 31, 2020 | Culture

Photo Credit: Colin Beresford

Shimmering under a cloudless sky, sit nearly 200 loaf-of-bread­-shaped aluminum Airstreams at Jackson Center in Ohio. Some displayed bumper stickers that read, “Team Airstream” and “Tin Can Tourists.” The trailer parking lots sport pink plastic flamingos — the unofficial Airstream mascot — and a “No Hippies Allowed” sign. American flags, portable fire pits, and even a meat smoker can be found in the area as well.

“The trailers are a reflection of their owners,” explained Janice Hicks of Shillington, Pennsylvania, owner of a 1968 22-foot Airstream Safari. 

Hicks added, happily, that this month was her Airstream’s 50th birthday.  

Welcome to the annual Alumapalooza, a name that combines aluminum with palooza, which the Urban Dictionary defines as “a very drunken extravagant party with a plethora of friends.” In truth, most activities at the five-day gathering of Airstream owners were tame. The festival is filled with friendly gatherings, concerts, seminars about Airstreams and tours of the Mothership. “The Mothership” is what Airstreamers call the factory in Jackson Center, located midway between Toledo and Cincinnati, that builds the iconic, aluminum home-on-wheels.  

Baby boomers are hitting the road and increasing sales  

Airstream is enjoying a sales spike thanks to the wave of baby boomers turning 65, the most frequent age for travel-trailer and RV purchases. Sales have surged eightfold since 2009, the trough of the financial crisis, says the company. The Airstream company does not release exact sales numbers, but they are scheduled to spend $40 million to build a second factory in Jackson Center to meet surging demand. Airstream has also experienced an impressive increase in retail sales for nearly a decade.  

Other RV companies report similar sales success, but Airstream’s status among the trailer-hauling crowd is unique. Airstream has become a multifaceted word with a derivative noun, Airstreamers, and a verb, Airstreaming. If you google “Winnebagoing,” in contrast, you won’t find anything. Airstream owners dub Winnebago, Jayco trailers, and any other non-Airstream an S.O.B — some other brand.  

Airstream trailers typically cost many times that of competing brands, and Airstreamers have their own peculiar, internal pecking order. Owners of older models have special status. So do Airstreamers who tow their trailers without trucks. At the pinnacle of the Airstreamer hierarchy stand the full-timers, whose nickname pretty much explains itself.

“It’s a cult,” said one Alumapalooza attendee, with an inkling of pride. 

Every Airstream has electricity, a kitchen, beds and indoor plumbing. This is the essential equipment for glamping — a blend of glamour and camping that’s a far cry from Boy Scout tents.

“There’s nobody that’s really lukewarm about Airstream,” said Michael Lambert, an artist and musician from St. Thomas, Ontario, with self-diagnosed “Aluminitus.” 

“It’s kind of all or nothing.”

Airstream vs. the competition

Winnebago is the other travel-trailer corporate giant, but Airstreamers turn up their noses at it. One reason being, the starting price point for a new 33-foot Airstream Classic, the company’s longest trailer, is more than $155,000. To put this into perspective, a new 32-foot Winnebago Minnie Plus costs only $44,000. 

Also, fueling Airstreamers’ superiority complex is how their trailers are created. The Jackson Center factory isn’t a Henry Ford assembly line. Each trailer that a worker sees in a day is different. The one-piece body is set on the chassis, and interior furnishings are brought in through the door. This process assures rattle-free sturdiness, the company says. A two-shift production schedule was scrapped because workers made too many mistakes in the hand-off between shifts. There’s now one shift of nine hours each day.  

“It’s a very different production than any other travel-trailer that’s available on the market,” said Eric Davis, an Airstream and RV dealer in Columbus, Ohio. 

“Back in the day, there used to be quite a few manufacturers that produced really good product. Airstream is one of the sole survivors,” Davis said. 

After ordering their Airstream, buyers typically wait six to eight months for delivery, as there are about 3,400 Airstreams currently back-ordered. Some customers stop by the factory to watch the final stages of production. 

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The benefit of going vintage 

Newness doesn’t count for much in the Airstream-owner hierarchy. Having a vintage, or well-preserved trailer confers instant status. It’s unclear how many of those there are, but the company says 70% of all Airstreams made are still roaming the roads.

Vintage Airstreams also make owning an Airstream financially feasible for people who want one, but can’t afford it, because used and unrestored Airstreams sell at a discount. 

“Financially, I couldn’t just go out and buy a $40,000 Bambi,” said Rachel Payne, a vice president of the Vintage Airstream Club. The 41-year-old school bus driver owns a 1962 24-foot Tradewind. 

“The whole cool factor is just there with an old one.”

Any Airstream older than 25 years can qualify officially as vintage, and make its owner eligible for membership in the Vintage Airstream Club, a sub-club of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI), the organization started by Airstream’s founder. Owners of newer trailers cannot be admitted, though they can qualify for associate membership if they “love the vintage lifestyle,” says the Vintage Club’s application form. 

Some vintage Airstream lovers produce the “Vintage Airstream Podcast,” which now has more than 300 episodes. 

Michael Lambert currently owns two Airstreams, a 1963 Bambi and a 2005 Safari, but has owned three other vintage trailers. He’s prided himself on having a mirror-finish on his trailers, a time-intensive process. When asked how long it takes, he replies, “Oh, April.”

“When you see a vintage polished trailer going down the road, there’s really nothing else on the road like it,” Lambert continued. 

The hierarchy of Airstream’s cult following 

The Airstream lifestyle is considered a cult amongst their dedicated followers, with multiple tiers of fandom — the most prominent being full-timers. One Airstream intra-club, the Classics, consists exclusively of owners of the Airstream Classic model, which is still in production today. Members believe it best embodies the look of the original Airstreams. They disdain one of the newer Airstream models, the Nest, a mini-trailer without any aluminum.  

Some Airstreamers have become fixated on how they haul their trailers, an issue that harks back to the company’s tradition of touting its lightweight streamlining. One early advertisement pictured a man towing his 22-foot, 2,200-pound trailer with a bicycle. Not very far, most likely, but one can appreciate his passion. 

Andy Thomson of London, Ontario, Canada, has established himself as the go-to guru on trailer hitches, modifying them so Airstreams can be hauled with cars. Thomson, who owns an RV dealership, tows his Airstream with a Jaguar XJ sedan, to the applause and wonder of his Airstreaming peers. Most of them use pickup trucks or SUVs. Thomson also modified the trailer hitch for another couple so they can haul their trailer with their Corvette.  

The theory behind Thomson’s logic is this; vehicles are given a much lower tow rating than what they can handle. And many pickup trucks lack excellent towing characteristics such as a low center of gravity, independent rear suspension, a small rear overhang and low drag. Airstream trailers, he adds, are one of the only travel-trailers capable of being towed by smaller vehicles because they’re more aerodynamic, better balanced and lighter than their counterparts.

Living the dream of a full-timer 

At the pinnacle of Airstreaming, though, is full-timing — the act of selling one’s home and downsizing to live in the Airstream full-time. Jim Cocke, the former-president of WBCCI, and his wife Debbie have been doing it for 11 years now.  

“We were in a campground near Copper Hill, Virginia, and met an Airstream couple who were describing how they lived full-time in their Airstream,” explains Cocke, who’s retired from healthcare management. 

The couple used to have a 3,000-square foot house in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Two years later, we had gotten our fourth child out of the house, sold the house and the contents, and we were on it.” 

Their 25-foot Airstream Odyssey is equipped with solar panels and a wireless hotspot with a signal booster. The Odyssey boasts 145-square feet on the interior, and they tow it with a Chevy 2500HD. The couple, both age 65, has traveled all around America’s lower 48 states, as well as to Canada and Alaska, since 2007. Each year, their route differs, sometimes they spend the majority of the year in the east, and others in the west. 

“We just go. We don’t make reservations generally unless it’s going to be a holiday weekend,” Cocke said. 

“It gives us more freedom, and full-timing is all about freedom,” he admitted. 

Visiting their children and grandchildren involves either simply parking their trailer in the driveway or at a nearby campground. They hope to make it to Europe with their Airstream one day. 

Another full-timer, Stacey Powers, moved out of her San Diego, California home into her Airstream just over a year ago when she realized she could do her job remotely, wherever her trailer was parked. Now, she chases waves on the West Coast, running a corporate social media page when she’s not surfing. At 33, Powers represents a younger generation of Airstreamers. Younger still are some people who live in their vans, sans trailer, full time, hopping from campground to campground. 

Millenials are on board 

“Living out of a van is the new American dream,” declared an article in Vice magazine a couple years ago. 

A New Yorker article in April of 2017 headlined “#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement,” described millennials who live on the road but whose real stomping ground is social media, where their travel and adventures are thoroughly documented. 

Executives hope that one day the van-dwellers will graduate to Airstreams or other RVs. Justin Humphreys, Chief Operating Officer of Airstream, said they classify the Airstream following into two categories: Streamers, who are current customers and are very active, and Dreamers, who may not have the ability to buy an Airstream, but “love the brand.”

“The Airstream brand fits perfectly with the millennial mantra of valuing experiences more than stuff,” Humphreys explained in an email. 

“Airstream in many ways is a symbol for that philosophy, and we will continue to invest in this group by communicating and marketing to future streamers,” said Humphreys.

Repurposed trailers – life beyond the road 

Yet another part of the Airstream phenomenon is how the trailers are repurposed when their road-roaming days are over. “Hairstreams,” barber shops in Airstreams, have popped up around the country. Some are mobile, and others aren’t. Other Airstreams have been repurposed as food trucks or as Airstream motels. 

Airstreams are here to stay 

All of this testifies to Airstream’s unique appeal. “Once people fall in love with the brand, there is no other brand,” says Lori Plummer, the corporate manager of WBCCI. 

“You [WBCCI] have the ability to provide experiences,” Plummer said, describing the brand and lifestyle of Airstream.  

The Airstream community values their freedom, and with the growing trend of #Vanlife among younger generations, the Airstream-inspired nomadic lifestyle continues to thrive. 

All this appears to fit the last point of Wally Byam’s Creed, “To strive endlessly to stir the venturesome spirit that moves you to follow a rainbow to its end… and thus make your travel dreams come true.”

 

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